Citizens against police brutality

Copwatch aims to hold police accountable

Members of Copwatch, a non-profit and volunteer-based organization that works to stop police violence in Winnipeg, meet once a month to organize committees and schedule events like weekly patrols. Antoinette Dycksman

Winnipeg Copwatch, a non-profit and volunteer-based organization that works to stop police violence in Winnipeg, have planned a series of events surrounding the March 15 International Day Against Police Brutality. Copwatch has scheduled a march from Selkirk Avenue to the Magnus Eliason Recreation Centre to be held on Saturday, March 13 at noon in solidarity with the victims of police brutality.

“I think the very idea of copwatching [monitoring police conduct at all times] has generated conversation,” said Alex Paterson, member of Winnipeg Copwatch.

Copwatch members meet once a month to organize committees and schedule events like weekly patrols, where volunteers record the conduct of police on the streets of a particular neighbourhood. Through the police brutality march and other events, the group hopes they can successfully advocate for the full democratization of the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS).

“There is no direct mechanism for a community or neighbourhood [in Winnipeg] to review the actions of a police officer themselves,” said Paterson.

Last year, the province made significant amendments to the Police Services Act and passed legislation that outlines policing duties, resulting in the Manitoba Police Commission, a civilian-led board that will be responsible for the hiring and firing of the police chief, administering police budgets and working to uphold accountability. The commission will be set up this year and has yet to be implemented. Its members will be appointed by the province.

Copwatch maintains the commission must be elected like city council in order to be fully accountable.

“What we emphasize is that the institutional channels aren’t set up for citizens to have control of the WPS,” said Paterson.

However, the WPS believes it is making great efforts to reach out to communities in the city.

“We’re always supportive of initiatives to make the WPS more transparent,” said Constable Jacqueline Chaput, public information officer for the WPS. She added the police put out regular media releases made available to the public and to the press. She believes that beat patrols and uniformed police that patrol sidewalks are helping to bridge the gap between the police and the community.

“We are a very visible presence [in the downtown] and can address and take a pro-active approach to crime in those neighborhoods,” she said.

Sel Burrows, a 66-year-old civic activist and Point Douglas resident, agrees.

“The police can only do so much,” he said. “The community itself must make clear what its standards are.”

Burrows and his wife have set up Power line, a volunteer-run telephone line in North and South Point Douglas, that is meant for non-emergency calls that require investigation, like a neighbourhood house suspected of drug trafficking. Calls made to the Power line remain anonymous and are passed on to the Public Safety Investigations Branch of Manitoba Justice, who will then conduct an investigation if warranted.

“The Power line aids community/police communication and provides immediate community law enforcement ... There is a sense that the community and the police are a team [in Point Douglas],” he said.

Burrows sat on the Police Advisory Board, a citizen-based board meant to make recommendations to the WPS, which was disbanded last year in favour of the police commission. The board existed from 2008-2009.

Although Copwatch advocates for the democratization of police, they are less clear on suggesting what that should look like.

“There are a lot of democratization models that have been proposed ... but it’s more important to point out that there is currently no citizen participation in thinking about or making decisions about how the police function in our society,” said Shelagh Pizey-Allen, a Copwatch member.

Pizey-Allen was directly involved in an incident with police in May 2006 that involved Winnipeg police officers allegedly beating up, arresting and detaining members of Critical Mass, a group of Winnipeg cyclists. Allen says she was wrongfully detained by police during the incident and filed a complaint with the provincial Law Enforcement Review Agency (LERA), an independent agency set up to hear non-criminal complaints over police conduct. She has yet to receive a response from the agency.

Published in Volume 64, Number 21 of The Uniter (March 4, 2010)

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